Human rights activists are expressing concerns that the international community has abandoned its efforts to intervene in order to prevent mass atrocities, leading to fears that such incidents may become commonplace worldwide. These warnings coincide with the 75th anniversaries of the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both signed in the aftermath of the Holocaust with the hope that the world would unite to prevent future mass killings. However, the United Nations’ “responsibility to protect” principle and US efforts to establish mechanisms for atrocity prevention have faltered in the face of a resurgence of such crimes. Recent examples include the mass killing of civilians in Syria and Ukraine, the internment of over a million Uyghurs and other Muslims in China, war crimes in Ethiopia, and the resumption of ethnic cleansing in Sudan’s Darfur province.
These incidents have been further compounded by the Hamas killing of 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, and the subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 16,000 people, with women and children comprising the majority of the casualties. Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has warned of a heightened risk of atrocity crimes. Kate Ferguson, the co-founding director of Protection Approaches, an NGO focused on preventing and responding to identity-based violence, stated that the prevalence of such violence indicates that it may characterize the next political era.
The UN Security Council has been hampered by rivalries among the veto-wielding great powers, who themselves have been implicated in these atrocities. In response to the deadlock over the Gaza war, UN Secretary-General António Guterres invoked a clause in the UN Charter that had not been used in decades to force a debate on a humanitarian ceasefire. Additionally, the Security Council closed the UN political mission in Sudan, despite ongoing killings in Darfur, reflecting a lack of enthusiasm for international peacekeeping missions and marking the demise of the “responsibility to protect” principle adopted by a UN world summit in 2005.
Human rights advocates argue that the ambition to prevent genocide and other crimes against humanity and war crimes has also waned in US foreign policy. The creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board in 2012, chaired by Samantha Power, aimed to identify early warning signs of populations at risk and develop a range of tools for early intervention. However, the Obama administration’s record on atrocity prevention was mixed, with interventions in Libya and Syria resulting in unintended consequences and criticism.
Since then, Congress has passed the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, which mandates training for US diplomats and concrete responses to atrocity crimes. Last year, the State Department adopted the first-ever US strategy to anticipate, prevent, and respond to atrocities. However, human rights activists argue that atrocity prevention has received less attention in the Biden administration. The atrocity prevention task force now has less senior leadership and no longer plays a role in high-level policymaking. Critics claim that the US has been slow to respond to atrocity crimes in Ethiopia and Sudan and has been paralyzed in the face of the Israel-Hamas conflict. This has led to accusations of complicity in potential Israeli war crimes in Gaza.
Nicole Widdersheim, a former senior administration official who served on the Atrocity Prevention Board, expressed disappointment in the Biden administration’s failure to pursue its own strategy and utilize existing laws and tools. Stephen Pomper, who succeeded Samantha Power as the chair of the board, acknowledged that the ambition to prevent atrocity crimes has diminished within the administration. He argued that the decline can be attributed to the original assumptions underlying the policy, which relied on the continued functioning of the UN and the international order.
In conclusion, human rights activists are warning that the international community’s efforts to prevent mass atrocities have waned, resulting in a heightened risk of such crimes becoming the norm. The UN’s “responsibility to protect” principle and US mechanisms for atrocity prevention have faltered, and the Security Council has been paralyzed by rivalries among major powers. The Biden administration has been criticized for its lack of focus on atrocity prevention, and there are concerns that existing laws and tools are not being utilized effectively. The decline in efforts to prevent atrocity crimes can be attributed to underlying assumptions that relied on the functioning of the UN and the international order.